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Book Review: William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury

Mark Twain famously said something like “A classic is a book that everybody praises but that nobody reads.” I can’t help but wonder whether or not the majority of the people who now read The Sound and the Fury read it out of curiosity or because their high-school honors English teacher assigns it to them, or because it's on the syllabus for their college southern literature class. I read it out of curiosity, but I confess that it is on my daughter’s summer reading list.

There’s nothing wrong with putting a book down if you read for a while and then realize it doesn’t appeal to you. I think some people who abandon books in media res feel guilty about it and don’t tell their friends. I’m one of those people; I’ve started but never finished countless books. But I will now boast that, even though I was struggling with this novel for almost 200 pages before I started enjoying it, my patience was rewarded. I don't have the patience I once had with stream-of consciousness narration, or with fragmented narrative styles, but even so, I kept at it, and I might now even put it on my desert island list. That’s because you could read it over and over and find new things each time, and understand with repeated readings what once perplexed you.

The novel, set in a fictional Jefferson, Mississippi in 1928 and in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1910, tells the story of the downfall of the Compson family. The first chapter focuses on Benji, a 33 year-old, retarded boy/man, who is cared for by a black adolescent by the name of Luster. Benji is sad, and spends a lot of time crying, (“bellowing,” “wailing” or “moaning”). It’s brutal. Faulkner’s challenge is using the first-person to narrate a story when in fact the person cannot even speak. Faulkner manages it, using italics to signal drastic change of perspective or time. Although titled “April Seventh 1928,” I’m convinced that there is significant chronological skipping back and fourth in it.

The second chapter, “June Second 1910,” recounts events in Massachusetts leading up to the suicide of Benji’s brother Quentin. The family has sold off Benji’s inheritance in order to send Quentin to Harvard. A main theme is incest, even though in fact Quentin never commits incest with his sister Candace, or “Caddy.” But he can’t stop obsessing about her or about the importance of her virginity to the honor of the family.

The third chapter, “April 6, 1928,” is written from the perspective of Jason, the asshole younger brother of Benji and the deceased Quentin. It tells the story of his troubled relationship with his niece, also named Quentin. Caddy periodically remits money to the family to support her daughter, but Jason keeps it, storing it in a box in the closet of his locked bedroom. Quentin, a rebellious girl, eventually breaks into Jason’s bedroom and takes the money, thousands of dollars, thus enraging him. He sets out in pursuit of her. At this point, the novel becomes a page-turner.

The final chapter, “April Eighth 1928,” continues this story, but focuses mostly on Dilsey, an old black woman who is a servant for the family. She is the only person in the world whom Jason fears. This is the only chapter written from the perspective of a traditional, third-person narrator. On Benji: “Then Ben wailed again, hopeless and prolonged. It was nothing, just sound. It might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant by a conjunction of planets.”

Curiously, all of the Compsons are messed up psychologically, with the exception of the simple Benji, who merely exudes sadness. The black servants, on the other hand, are good people. Luster is just a teen, but he manages to care for and entertain Benji. Dilsey is more or less the moral authority of the household and takes Benji to church so that he can hear the singing.

Faulkner published the novel in 1928, but in the forties added an appendix, which clarifies many things and gives additional information about the various characters. I was tempted to consult the internet know-it-alls when I was getting started, but it was a temptation resisted.

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sledding

May 2018

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